I like ARPGs. Y’know, “Action” RPGs that are now totally misnamed because most RPGs have at least as much real time action as they do, and which are instead defined by the dungeon structure, ability trees, and especially loot system introduced by Diablo. As an alternative to gushing about XCOM even more, I’m instead going to tackle the question of how to translate Diablo loot to the tabletop.
Before getting into that, the concern of whether or not this is even a good idea should be addressed. Because making a direct and obvious translation of Diablo looting to the tabletop is a terrible idea. You kill a rat and a treasure chest pops out, you pop that open and you find gauntlets of ogre strength and 27 gold. That’s literally a joke. It works in ARPGs because we all get that verisimilitude isn’t high on their list of priorities, and that the looting is mostly abstract in the context of whatever the greater story is (which is itself better off being just present enough to provide necessary context and stakes – Diablo 3 suffered for too strong an emphasis on a story that wasn’t very good). In a tabletop RPG, you actually have to narrate out that the ghoul was apparently carrying a vorpal sword that it didn’t feel the need to use over the rusty scimitar it’d been attacking the party with while still animate.
Not only that, but Diablo looting operates on having tons of fiddly little numerical increases in different stats. Damage. Accuracy. Rate of attack. Elemental damage. Even in a TTRPG designed to include all of these things (i.e. attacks per turn is a function of weapon, not character class and level, weapons provide significant accuracy bonuses or penalties, and so on), these just can’t have the same diversity as Diablo gives them because the numbers have to be smaller because the game isn’t run by a computer. Number inflation is already a problem in RPGs (especially with regards to hit points), and that’s with the numbers within any given level generally being pretty reasonable (i.e. the difference in to-hit bonuses for level 5 characters and their level appropriate opponents tends to be within maybe ten points from one end to the other). In Diablo, a key part of the system is that it’s possible for this weapon to be 7% more accurate but deal five fewer points of damage and attack only 95% as often. And at the end of the next encounter, you’ll have found another weapon with equally tiny fiddly bonuses. Players cannot be reasonably expected to update their character sheets that often.
So why, then, do we want to make some means of making it work anyway? What’s the benefit we’re trying to salvage? The Diablo loot lottery triggers the same reward centers as an actual, legit lottery, scratch card, or slot machine, but it does so without pumping anyone for money. It’s all the thrill of gambling without the cruel exploitation of the hopeless and/or mathematically illiterate. Most drops are trash that can be rendered down into gold as a consolation prize. Every now and again you get a solid upgrade that will keep you on track for level appropriate foes. A very rare few will be powerful weapons that give you a significant edge over the opposition. The chance that you might get that awesome weapon makes each drop exciting, even though most of them are going to be rendered down into gold and used to buy healing and portals.
The three key elements of Diablo looting, then, are frequent drops, a small chance of something great, and some kind of consolation prize you can recycle the trash drops into. The middle one is the easiest: Make your loot tables unbalanced, and roll them right in front of the players. You don’t want the ultimate drop to be something so horribly lame as a +5 sword, but imagine instead a setup where weapons have a randomly determined number of special qualities like “flaming,” which adds +1d6 fire damage and sets enemies on fire if it hits (with actual rules for enemies being on fire, like having to make Willpower/Wisdom saves to do anything except run around screaming and it takes a full round action to stop drop and roll to put it out or something), “stunning” which requires targets to make a Fortitude/Constitution save or else be stunned for one round, “recall” which allows whoever’s attuned to it to teleport the weapon to their hands with a bonus action, and of course classics like “vorpal” where crits instantly decapitate the target (which will kill most things). Making a big enough list of these that players can get weapons with one quality randomly selected from the list without running into constant repeats (especially since we want some magic weapons to carry multiple abilities, a sword that’s vorpal and teleports back to the user’s hand as a bonus action and stuff like that) is not as easy in execution as it is to simply declare that it would be cool, but it’s doable, the 3e tables are a good chunk of the way there already, and it satisfies one of our three requirements.
One of the biggest obstacles to this “small chance of something great” paradigm is the boringly practical math bonus. If you get a +5 sword, that is probably the best sword you’ll have for a while, because it’s +5. Even if that +5 bonus had a 1% chance of rolling and feels cool to get in the moment, it is thereafter boring to use, because all you do is make the exact same attack rolls you always have, but with slightly bigger numbers. There are two ways to handle this. First, eliminate math upgrades entirely. No more +5 swords, no more +1 swords. Everything is all just special abilities. The second means of dealing with that is to control the bonus of the weapon drops independently of the loot tables. Instead of a +3 sword being a specific entry on the loot table, instead drops from CR 13-16 creatures are automatically +3, and maybe there’s a specific entry on the table for “X+1 sword” and “X-1 sword, but roll twice more for magic abilities,” which at CR 13-16 will get you a +4 and a +2 sword with extra mojo, respectively, but otherwise every sword you encounter will be +3. Alternatively, every magic sword becomes +3 when in the hands of a level 13-16 character, and will have different bonuses in the hands of characters with higher or lower levels.
Let’s look at frequent drops next. By migrating our weapons into random abilities instead of random stats, we’ve already solved a lot of the problem with frequent drops. If the primary difference between the sword you’ve got and the one that just dropped is that one grants healing equal to half the damage it deals and the other forces enemies to make a Willpower/Wisdom save or be frightened for the rest of the combat, then no one has to recalculate anything. Additionally, since there are at least three and as many as seven people in the party, each individual character watches the roulette wheel spin but only one of them will keep the result and have to update their character sheet at all – if the party doesn’t decide to just feed it into the wood chipper.
This brings us to our final problem. What happens when you drop an item into the wood chipper? Magic item shops, while perfectly plausible and an obvious solution, are kind of lame. It ruins a good deal of the loot table’s fun if the optimal choice for your build is a keen flaming vorpal greataxe and every item which isn’t that is ultimately just rendered down into gold to make that. Diablo and its followers didn’t tend to have many magic items worth considering in their shops, so instead trash drops were swapped for potions and portals, which preserve the thrill of the loot roulette, but are also mainly useful only for games that are actually like Diablo, i.e. the characters make runs deeper and deeper into a single, massive, multi-level dungeon, and potions that extend the length of the run and portals that allow a safe retreat to town without losing progress are significant bonuses. This is not true in many games of D&D. It is often the case that the game, rather than finding some kind of time limit or similar reason to thwart the five minute workday, just builds all encounters around the assumption that PCs will indeed rest up to full health whenever convenient. If they’re traveling across the wilderness in Tomb of Annihilation, they can hardly help but do anything else. So while the solution of “impose time limits or otherwise apply pressure to thwart the five minute workday, have players exchange magic loot for potions” can work, it’s not very flexible.
The better solution is one that requires an awful lot of work: Crafting materials. Magic item crafting has always been kind of lackluster in tabletop roleplaying games because it’s always pretty much just been a way to get a discount on magic items, or maybe a means of buying ones that are not for sale traditionally. The additional requirement of crafting materials isn’t the deepest, most original thing ever or anything – every video game and their dog had crafting systems for a while there, and that trend has only recently started dying down – but it’s still a step up from just pure gold. You could have magic items be auto-rendered down to their component parts at a small loss and a certain time investment, or you could attach the disassembling process to a certain skill check, with a greater amount of the materials salvaged based on the result. Likewise, crafting a magic item could be as simple as having the necessary components and setting aside an afternoon, or it could require a roll to assemble the items, with the possibility of saving some items or getting a bonus ability on a better roll.
Regardless of the details, by rendering a dancing axe into two pouches of fairy dust, a bit of silvered lightning, and a bottle of pure thought, not only does it become something that you can’t just go into town and buy, it also means that what you can make with that axe depends on what else requires fairy dust, silvered lightning, and bottled thoughts. The thrill of the loot roulette is preserved, while still giving players some control over their inventory and something to do with the trash drops. Once you’ve got a decent magical arsenal going, you probably do not care about a ghost touch sword, because you got one of those clear back at level 3. But you can extract the dying breath used to make the thing, and with that, dragon’s blood, and some elemental essences, you can make a vorpal sword, so that’s something, at least.
What about when you’ve already got a half-dozen dying breaths, and you’ve got essence of lightning, fire, and ice, plus the dragon’s blood, but goddamn that essence of acid just won’t drop? Why do we care about getting another ghost touch sword at that point? This is where Cultist Simulator comes to our rescue. In Cultist Simulator, there are lores of various types which are necessary to various rituals. Each type of lore has specific cards going from level 2 to level 14. So, lore of the Lovecraftian dream god known as the Edge starts out at level 2 as the Knife’s Secret and caps out at level 14 with the Mysteries of Force. Two lower level lores can be combined into a higher level one. For example, if you have two copies of the Knife’s Secret, you can combine them into the Chilliarch’s Lesson.
Having tiered crafting ingredients that can be combined in this manner, perhaps requiring a crafting check to combine them (which you can take 10 on if you’re good enough, so at some point combining a bunch of lightning essences into an undying bolt is automatic), is not a bad idea in and of itself, although the seven different levels that Cultist Simulator uses is probably excessive. More importantly, however, Cultist Simulator allows one type of lore to be subverted to another. If you want the Chilliarch’s Lesson but you only have one Knife’s Secret, you can take the level 2 Forge lore, a Smith’s Secret, and subvert the Forge with the Edge to get the level 4 Edge lore, the Chilliarch’s Lessons. If you had level 2 Winter Lore, a Sextant’s Secret, you couldn’t use that to get the level 4 Edge lore, but you could subvert Edge to Winter instead, and get the level 4 Winter lore.
If you had a Red Secret, the level 2 Grail lore, you would not be able to subvert anything at all, because Grail and Edge are not adjacent to one another on the subversion chart, unless you had Moth, Lantern, and Forge lore as well, as then you could subvert Grail to Moth, Moth to Lantern, Lantern to Forge, and finally Forge to Edge. Each time you subvert, you lose lore of the initial type, so in this chain, you would end up with only a single Edge lore, and would lose the Grail, Moth, Lantern, and Forge lore subverted along the way. However, each time you subvert, you increase in rank. If you started with rank 2 Grail, you could subvert to rank 4 Moth, to rank 6 Lantern, to rank 8 Forge, to rank 10 Edge. You would only have one Edge lore, but it is very high ranked, and if you were trying to figure out how to turn your rank 8 Edge into rank 10 and don’t care about your lore in the other types, this chain lets you pull it off.
A similar subversion chain, when applied to crafting materials, mean that if you can never seem to get that one material to drop, you will eventually be able to get anything by building up a sufficiently massive reserve of any one material. For example, imagine a subversion chain that looks like this:
So you can turn two acid essences into one necrotic essence, but you can’t turn any number of necrotic essences into anything else but frost essences. Do you really need that acid essence to drop for your vorpal sword? Even if you never get acid, if you get some radiant you can convert that to lightning which will give you the second lightning you need to make some fire and that will give you the second fire you need to convert to acid. If you never get anything but necrotic essence, the kind furthest from acid, you will eventually have the 32 necrotic essences needed to get the 16 frost essences needed to get the 8 radiant essences needed to get the 4 lightning essences needed to get the 2 fire essences needed to get the acid essence.
Also, it should be noted that these elemental/damage type crafting materials are pretty super lame and in a finished product should obviously be replaced with something cooler.
These crafting materials can also drop directly, which often makes more sense than rolling to see what kind of items an enemy has after the fight is over. A wyvern’s lair may have random magic items from unfortunate victims lying around, which the wyvern is in no way capable of using itself, but the orc chieftain’s stash isn’t going to contain magic items that he doesn’t personally use. It could contain a bunch of liquid agony, though.
So if you want a tabletop looting system that gives the same experience as Diablo looting, step one is to scrap lots of fiddly numerical bonuses in favor of interesting special abilities, step two is to either eliminate numerical bonuses completely or standardize them so that a +5 sword is not a specific (and very boringly effective) ability on the loot chart, and step three is to set up a crafting system so that redundant items and trash drops can still be recycled into something useful in a way that doesn’t thwart the fun drops in the first place the way that simply exchanging loot for gold and then gold for the optimal item for your build does.